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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Training the Product Manager: An Inventory

I recently started a thread in the enormous LinkedIn Networking Product Management group about appropriate training "topics" for product managers. As a provider of product management training (see for details), I've been trying to assess how broad the need for training is in the product management community. I seeded the discussion with what I considered a short list of no-brainers, expecting a few folks to chime in with another topic or two:
  • Core product management (product life cycle, release management, product strategy etc)
  • Negotiation
  • Presentation Skills
  • Leadership
  • Business Planning
  • Product marketing.
I was extremely gratified to see far more responses than I expected (in the low 20s as of this writing). In my original post, I committed to consolidating the results and publishing them. I captured feedback in a mind map in a public Google Drive folder so that it will be available to anyone interested as it evolves. I've posted it as a PDF and a native XMind file. You can view/edit the XMind map if you so choose with the free version of their software.

I added comments to many nodes, but the general categories of training I identified were:
  • Product Management
  • Adjacent (topics related to other disciplines like marketing and sales and general professional training)
  • Technology
  • Organization-specific
  • Other
I wrestled with categorizing some of them so I'm sure others will have a different opinion. Based on feedback I get and new "discoveries", I'll update the map over time. My sincere thanks to all who chimed in and all that will.

I'm looking forward to seeing the map evolve with input from an even broader community!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Overview of a Product Management Assessment Framework

In a previous post, I enumerated what I consider to be the most important criteria for evaluating a framework for assessing a product management organization, particularly one focused on software. In this post, I'd like to outline the approach to product management assessments I've defined with these criteria in mind. I'm looking forward to feedback and discussion on the topic.

In an effort to be comprehensive, I've based the assessment approach on the idea of organizational maturity, a blanket concept that I think is reasonably intuitive. To keep things simple, the assessment generates a single value or score for the maturity of the product management organization. The organizational maturity score is a weighted average of 3 "dimensions" described below.

Dimension 1: Process Maturity
Process Maturity measures how well the organization understands, manages and executes its business processes. A business process converts business inputs to business outputs. Business processes don't have to be described with detailed graphical models and reams of documentation to be managed. What's important is that the organization understands which processes are important, have assigned ownership and is continuously improving them. I used ISPMA's framework to identify the "menu" of key process "elements" to be analyzed. Organizations should probably avoid analyzing more than 5-7 processes at the same time.

Each process can be assessed in general terms, e.g., is there a clear owner, as well as process-specific criteria, e.g., are roadmaps generated for different audiences (typically, a sign of maturity). These criteria can be scored, from 1 to 5 for example, so that an average or weighted average score can be calculated.

In terms of key process deliverables, I use a list of types of information organizations should be gathering rather than relying on a predefined set of artifacts. Checking process deliverables such as roadmaps and strategy papers for quality and completeness can help identify process that are suboptimal.

Dimension 2: Professional Competency
The professional competency dimension helps determine if the right people with the right knowledge and skills are executing the product management function. My framework uses a questionnaire that is filled out by product managers and their managers ranking their proficiency with various product management activities. My questionnaire is based on the Dimensions of Competency I've described in this blog (business leadership, product definition and product promotion).

Interviewing product managers, product management and executive leadership is also important, allowing an experienced assessor to determine if those doing product management have the appropriate background and personality to perform at a high level. There is clearly a subjective element to this dimension, but I don't believe any form or tool can replace experience and judgment. I also think it's important to interview members of other disciplines such as development, marketing and sales regarding the effectiveness of the product management organization.

Dimension 3: Organizational Setup Effectiveness
The effectiveness of the organizational setup is probably the most complex of the dimensions. At its heart, it explores if the organization is set up in a way that promotes success. For example, structural analysis looks at to which discipline the product management organization reports. I believe that, ideally, the functional and technical perspectives are separated organizationally. I talk about these different perspectives in my post about the "piles" of product management.

Organizational setup effectiveness also captures aspects such as professional development, engagement between functions, e.g., marketing, sales, and completeness of product development disciplines. For example, a highly effective product management discipline will ultimately fail if marketing or sales are underdeveloped or even absent.

Bringing it All Together: The Maturity Dashboard
Via simple tools, observation and interviews, scores are generated for each dimension. Weights are assigned for each dimension with the weighted average representing the organizational maturity score. Although this approach is not purely scientific, it is highly approachable and supports prioritization of improvement efforts, i.e., the efforts that have the highest impact on the organizational maturity score are those that should be addressed first. This idea is predicated on the idea that the dimensions and the information gathered truly represent critical aspects of the product management discipline.

The figure below shows a fairly simple representation of what can be a large, complex set of data. I've defined the different levels of overall maturity informed by the maturity levels found in the Capability Maturity Model (CMM).

Note the weights assigned to the dimensions to the left of the labels in the table at the bottom. These are examples of values that can be easily adjusted for a particular client. Some organizations might emphasize Professional Competency (or any of the other dimensions) more heavily so would adjust its weight accordingly. 

Assessing the maturity of an organization is an inherently complex problem. The framework I propose attempts to balance objective data with the judgment of an experienced assessor. A great deal of qualitative and quantitative data would, of course, accompany the dashboard.

So what do you think? Is it similar to other frameworks you've seen? What do you see as the biggest gaps? Do you think this approach could be valuable with your organization? 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Does your organization really know what it's taking to market?

Having been exposed to a fairly large number of product organizations, I continue to be surprised at how rarely they explicitly define a set of concepts representing what it is they take to market. Terms like "product" and "solution" are bandied about but often it seems no one can point to a common definition, resulting in multiple people and organizations having their own definitions and associated expectations regarding these concepts. Having clear, consistent definitions for the things we take to market help keep the entire organization, from executive leadership to developers, on the same page and can have important implications for assigning accountabilities. In this post, I'd like to offer a set of simple concepts that have served me well. If used consistently, these definitions can alleviate some of the confusion I've seen time and time again in product organizations all over the planet.
  • An offering is an umbrella concept representing anything that your organization takes to market for customers to consume. The rest of the concepts in this list are types of offerings.
  • A product is a good, virtual or otherwise, that is developed and delivered to multiple customers in essentially the same form. Managing products throughout their life cycle presents challenges that I believe are an order of magnitude greater than managing deliverables from a customer-specific project. Transitioning from single-customer project deliverables to product delivery is a topic I've addressed previously in this blog.
  • A service, in the context of offerings, is work performed by people for customers, whether it involves "knowledge work" or physical labor. Services are an under-served offering in many organizations, representing a way to add incremental customer value while strengthening customer relationships.
  • A solution bundles products and services (and other solutions!) to solve customer problems. Solutions are very often customized heavily for individual customers. Market solutions are defined a priori and promoted in the market. Customer solutions are an instance of a solution delivered to a specific customer.
Based on these definitions, I've found that many product managers, especially those in the B2B space, are actually managing solutions. Acknowledging this fact can help everyone in the organization appreciate the scope and complexity of the work the product management organization is doing. 

I'm not sure that it's critical for every organization to adopt the exact same set of concepts or terminology, but it would be nice! I think it's more important that all product development disciplines (PM, marketing, sales) and executive leadership be on the same page. Ideally, this same or very similar terminology is used to describe offerings to customers and prospects.

What do you think of these definitions? Are they similar to the ones your organization uses? Does your organization have an explicit set of shared definitions?

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